I don’t often read teen fiction, really, but when I saw how mesmerised my daughter was with the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, I decided to have a closer look. I cheated a little and watched the movie of the first book and could see why young people would love the series. In fact in March 2012, Amazon announced that Collins had become the best-selling Kindle eBook author of all time.
If you are not familiar with the Hunger Games concept let me explain. Very broadly it’s about control from the top and survival of the fittest. The novel deals with the struggle for self preservation. People are pitted against each other in a conflict that mostly results in death. It sounds gruesome but it is very captivating. The characters have to call on their very best and innovative hunting and survival skills in order to stay alive.
This got me thinking about which is the best culture for innovation to occur in. Whilst on the Simunye Project, we have to be innovative. We have minimal resources, serious time pressures and a very challenging environment. That is not dissimilar to our competitive work places and volatile global ecosystem. So, is it the ‘Hunger Games’ culture or is it an Ubuntu culture where innovation thrives?
Ubuntu means “I am what I am because of who we all are.” It is an ancient African philosophy. Archbishop Tutu describes it like this: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole ….”
In essence it is a supportive culture where people strive to collaborate. They see this approach as the ultimate winning strategy. An open communication and support of others drives a free flow of ideas. With a free flow of ideas comes a confidence to air opinions, examine processes and critique old ways of doing things. Ideas come from everywhere. An Ubuntu culture has a strong foundation of moral decency, fairness and goodness. People are held accountable when they do not act in accordance with these values.
In an Ubuntu culture there is a lack of ego. Ego brings with it a feeling of lack and separateness. Lack because if you have a good idea and I don’t, then I am lacking in good ideas. In Ubuntu, the fact that you have a good idea is celebrated and I will do my utmost to support you (which will include forthright feedback) because together we are better. The separateness is felt because ego isolates. It draws you into a protectionist zone where you feel the need to fiercely defend your turf. This is indicative of a scarcity mentality. Ubuntu promotes an abundance mentality.
Such an organisation is defined by a flat structure with weak boundaries between departments and a low emphasis on hierarchy. Multi disciplinary teams, virtual teams, integrated project teams and the like are examples of forms that contribute to innovation. In some organisations time (15% like at 3M) and space (offices that are conducive to thinking and collaboration) is given to foster ideas. Serendipity is a key factor to new ideas cropping up. Simply sitting in an innovation team being forced to think of new ideas seldom has the desired results. However, the ability to capture the ideas and incubate them is a key feature of an Ubuntu organsiation that seeks to promote creative and collaborative thought.
What of a ‘Hunger Games’ organisation? Such an organisation is not devoid of moral standards nor is it polar opposite to an Ubuntu one. It is simply different. It is survival of the fittest, where political astuteness, resilience, self belief and belief in the idea enable survival.
Ideas survive because the holder of them has the resilience to fight against a culture that isn’t naturally supportive of fresh ideas. Such companies are not devoid of innovative ideas. They exist but struggle to get the surface and battle to come to fruition. Why? Because the organisation doesn’t have a culture of being open to new ideas. It may be that hierarchies and egos create barriers. People are fiercely protective of their own turf (departments) and struggle to see support a new innovation unless they see the benefits to them and their team. The downside is that only a few ideas ever surface. The upside is those ideas that do have been through a ‘keyhole’ experience where they have been squeezed, pushed around, tested, denied access and in the process become tougher and more durable. These ideas survive largely because of the resilience and passion of the innovator. The downside? Innovators leave taking their ideas with them. The upside? Those that stay will continue to innovate as they have renewed self confidence in their ability to make things happen and the confidence of others. And only the best and most profitable ideas survive.
Where do you see your team’s or company’s culture? What is the best culture for innovation? Is it somewhere in the middle? Is an open and ego-less culture requisite for great ideas to flourish, or should they go through the keyhole experience to make them rich and hardy?
You may not even want to consider this but instead put your feet up and read the trilogy to see what all the fuss is about!
By Peter Dry 2017